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A Fine Romance: Inside An Arranged Marriage


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Sukh Takhar and his wife, Swarnjeet Sidhu, sit together on a black leather couch in their Hamilton home. They smile, joke and touch as they tell their story of marriage and love.

"We clicked really quickly," says Sukh.

"After we met, I was so impressed by Sukh," says Swarnjeet, her face lighting up. "I liked his nature."

Sukh beams. He reckons that's a great response, jokes that it's even better than if he'd written cue cards for her.

Sukh and Swarnjeet are a good-looking couple, exuding the warmth and contentment of a husband and wife who've been together a long time, and understand each other's funny little ways. But the pair have known each other for only seven months.

They wed in India on January 22, 19 days after their first meeting, and they had never been on a date together. They are Sikhs and theirs is an arranged marriage, the decision made jointly by their families as well as themselves.

Sukh is 28, Swarnjeet is 27, they're both smart, articulate, university educated and career oriented, and you'd think they'd be pretty good at choosing their own partner. But each has grown up knowing that one day they would find the right person through the Sikh tradition of family consensus. "This is how it happens," Sukh says. "I never had any doubt about it."

Swarnjeet has friends who have made a "love marriage", but she feels arranged marriages are more successful. It is the basis of strong relationships, she says, and she had great faith in her family to help her find the right husband.

Swarnjeet is from the Punjab region in northern India, the Sikh heartland. Sukh came to New Zealand from the Punjab as a preschooler with his mother, Nirmal Kaur, and older brother, Ripandeep, after the death of their father. They joined extended family in Gordonton and he's grown up in the Waikato.

Sukh is a laidback Kiwi lad, schooled at Hamilton Boys' High, then Waikato University. He's a sportsman, has a Kiwi accent and works for Telecom as a small enterprise business account manager.

He also speaks Punjabi and follows the Sikh religion; he's always known a Sikh bride would be his destiny, with compatible family values and background being important.

He has avoided relationships with Kiwi girls "because I knew there would be a conflict of interest it wouldn't lead anywhere".

"I made sure it didn't happen."

Sukh says there is sometimes a poor perception of arranged marriages in New Zealand because it so different from how things are done here. As he says, they tend to be noticed only when a relationship fails and there are perhaps media reports of violence, "forced marriages" and parental pressure.

Most arranged marriages are not for public discussion. Sukh and Swarnjeet are opening up about theirs because they believe in the tradition and say they've seen it work happily in previous generations as well as their own. They value the huge family support they've had in finding each other.

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Qualities in a wife

Sukh's journey to marriage started late last year. He'd achieved some personal goals, gained a degree, the family had built a beautiful new home in Hamilton: It was time to find a wife.

In an interview with Sukh in December last year, a week or two before he left for India, he was nervous and excited, mentioned that some of his workmates were "blown away" by what he was about to do.

His mother had gone ahead to India to get things started and classified advertisements were being placed on Sukh's behalf in Punjab newspapers. This outlined Sukh's background, and read a bit like a CV. He thought he might meet about four prospective brides.

Sukh said his mother wouldn't contact anyone until he got there. "All through this, she has said, 'It's your choice, there is no pressure.' "

Likewise, he said, a potential bride might meet him and turn him down.

"I don't want any pressure on either side that's the last thing I want. Everyone has the best intentions. My heart will have to be in it 100 per cent."

He outlined the qualities he was looking for in a wife: someone from a family with compatible values and background to his, a good education and understanding of English, a woman who would be brave enough to move to another country, who wanted to have children, and would also be comfortable living in the same household as Sukh's mother, his brother and sister-in-law, who all share a home.

Sukh said a sense of humour would be good, too. He laughed and said: "Someone who can appreciate my jokes. And get on with my friends and family. And someone attractive."

He found all this, and probably more.

A bit like speed dating

In India late last year, Swarnjeet was intent on finishing a master's degree in computer science. Her younger sister had registered her on a matrimonial website for a joke, then noticed Sukh's profile and told Swarnjeet, "You should have a look at him."

One thing led to another through a mix of modern technology and ancient custom. Contact details were exchanged and Sukh's mother talked to Swarnjeet's aunt in the United States, who was acting in the place of Swarnjeet's late mother.

A meeting was arranged for January 3; the two families met, then Sukh and Swarnjeet sat in a room on their own with the door open and continued the discussions.

"It was a bit like speed dating," says Sukh. "We talked about all the important stuff. Things like how would Swarnjeet cope if she moved overseas, lived in a joint family home?"

The answers were bang on. "All the boxes were being ticked she was already living in a joint family, she had a good understanding of English."

And, he adds, "She was attractive."

For her part, Swarnjeet quickly warmed to the young man. "Before I met Sukh, I was not serious [about finding a husband]. But I was so impressed by him. I liked his nature, he was so friendly, and I liked his smile."

Sukh had already met three women and another prospect was arranged for the next day. He says: "After meeting Swarnjeet, in my mind and heart I knew I didn't really need to [meet anyone else]." He told his mother he thought he'd found "the one".

Swarnjeet's family was invited to the home of Sukh's mother's family on January 5, and the pair talked more. Sukh told Swarnjeet how he was feeling. The relationship was almost agreed to, but both were obliged to consult further with their families and Swarnjeet's aunt flew in from the US in mid-January. The couple were engaged on January 18 and married four days later. There were hours of frantic work to get everything ready.

Arranged marriage - "Working happily"

Not that you'd think it was a rush to look at the photographs of the lavish big day.

The religious ceremony took place at the Nanaksar Temple in Dharamkot, Swarnjeet's home village in Punjab, with the bride and groom in dazzling red and white outfits.

In Sikh tradition, Sukh grew a beard and wore a turban for the marriage ceremony. Later, at the celebrations in a Shagun Marriage Palace in Moga, he shaved and dressed in a suit and white shirt.

Everyone in the photos is smiling: parents, siblings, aunties, uncles, cousins, friends, up to 400 people assembling to wish the young couple well.

A few months on, the family is still smiling. In the lounge for this interview with Sukh and Swarnjeet is Sukh's mother, Nirmal, his sister-in-law Manjinder [married to brother Ripandeep], and Sukh's uncle, Harkrishen Singh Kung, who is married to Nirmal's sister Satwinder.

They were all at the wedding in India and are pleased with the outcome. Sukh says his mother is too shy to say much, but she is very happy with her two beautiful daughters-in-law and the home they have established together.

As we talk, the women get up to check on dinner and Manjinder and Swarnjeet bring snacks and drinks into the lounge. It raises the question of how it works with three women in the same kitchen.

"We share," they reply. Adds Swarnjeet, "I have a new mother and a new sister. I am very lucky."

Manjinder has been married to Ripandeep for just over two years. He is a lieutenant in the Royal New Zealand Navy; he is based in Devonport and commutes to Hamilton on his days off. Manjinder is a web developer from Hawke's Bay, now relocated to Hamilton. The contacts and arrangements for their marriage took place in India, but they met in New Zealand and the wedding took place here.

Manjinder says there were perhaps a couple of meetings and some phone calls before marriage, and she has fitted happily into her new life.

Uncle Harkrishen Kung is clearly a respected senior member of the family. A retired Gordonton dairy farmer, he was awarded a Queen's Service Medal in this year's Queen's Birthday honours for his services to the Indian community. A founding member of the Sikh Society, he was instrumental in the construction of New Zealand's first Sikh temple at Te Rapa in 1977.

He is committed to the practice of arranged marriage; it remains widespread among Sikhs in New Zealand, and he sees it "working happily".

He says the key is that parents try very hard to find someone compatible for their children.

"They always have the best interests of their children at heart. Love starts after the wedding; it gets stronger."

He says if a couple fall out, the two families are there to support them. They have helped put the marriage together they want it to work.

In a love marriage, he thinks family support is not always available because often the parents hardly know each other.

Sometimes arranged marriages fail. Love does not grow, perhaps one party prefers a previous boyfriend or girlfriend, and sometimes the transition to New Zealand is too great. But even if there is a divorce, parents are involved in the arrangements.

Harkrishen and Sukh emphasise again the lack of pressure on young people to say yes.

Sukh acknowledges that sometimes parental pressure may have been the reason for a marriage failure in the past.

"The perception of people is that an arranged marriage is, Hey, you, you're getting married to that person. But everyone is involved and no one is obliged or forced into it."

During the lead-up to Sukh and Swarnjeet's marriage, both families were saying to their young people: "It's still not too late if you want to change your mind."

The settling period

After the marriage comes the settling in period, where couples who until recently have been strangers must get to know each other.

Sukh, Swarnjeet and Harkrishen use the phrase "love grows" as they discuss this transition.

Swarnjeet's take on it is that there are three stages in an arranged marriage: "You meet and marry, you gain an understanding of each other and share your feelings, then you become close and fall in love."

She and Sukh have done a lot of talking and Sukh says they can't believe how quickly they became comfortable with each other. "It felt like a love marriage we just clicked. I'm lucky."

Adds Swarnjeet: "I can share my feelings with my husband. He is like my best friend, as well as my life partner. He is my helping hand."

The helping hand is doing his best for his wife as she finds her feet in a new place. Sukh says it has been a leap of faith for Swarnjeet to move to New Zealand "she has stepped outside her comfort zone" and he is very mindful that she has left many family and friends behind.

Swarnjeet stayed in India for a few months after the wedding to sit the final exam for her master's on May 23. Two days after the exam, she travelled to New Zealand on a visitor's visa to join Sukh, who had returned home in February. Swarnjeet has applied for a work permit and permanent residency.

Sometimes she misses India, and says she never envisaged marrying a New Zealander and moving so far away. "It's all happened so quickly. But I like New Zealand a lot. This is now my country."

Great wedding pictures at this link.



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